3 out of 4 stars
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Sarah Katz’s Apex Five opens with an apocalypse: A storm of flaming rocks obliterates the surface of a world referred to as the Plane. Only five towering structures called megaliths survive, around which five countries — Opal, Tabira, Lir, Garo, and Ayam — soon emerge. The story picks off nearly 12,000 years after the storm. The mighty nation of Opal has been wiped out by Tabira, whose sudden technological progress hints at the staggering truth about the Plane and the mysterious beings who came before.
Katz’s characters are diverse and sometimes bizarre, but the geopolitical landscape they populate rings with unsettling familiarity. Tabira is a technological utopia where religion is outlawed, its stability shaken by a recent revolt that attempted to overthrow its chancellor, Mak Eta. Eta hands over the “hazard” named Rohem, the creature that had nearly caused her downfall, to Nasin of Lir. The desert nation of Lir holds one thing Tabira does not yet possess — hydrotechnology, which enables the Lirians to harness water from beneath the sands. Across their borders lies Garo, led by the zealous Governor Par who wages guerrilla warfare against the Lirians. Meanwhile, Telo, the young chief of Ayam, races to save his people from the Curse, a pathogen that transforms the afflicted into murderous beasts during the night. The narrative leaps across characters and places, as Katz sets everyone up for a collision course that would shape the future of the entire Plane, for better or worse.
They say science fiction holds a mirror to reality, a reflection embellished by scientific and technological elements perhaps but a reflection nonetheless. Apex Five is no exception. The displacement of the Lirians, for instance, harkens back to the Jewish diaspora. The self-immolation of the Garo freedom fighters brings to mind news flashes of terrorists and suicide bombers. Tabira’s attempt to colonize Ayam is almost like a walk down memory lane, replete with images of the conquerors and the conquered of ages past. Ethnic cleansing, biological warfare, and political strife mar the pages of the Plane’s history just as much as they do our own.
Politics and culture figure heavily in the story, but the humanity and struggles of the characters are never laid aside. On one hand, a freedom fighter has to train a little girl to join their ranks. On the other, a young Lasha — people with genetic mutations who change genders every few weeks — is rejected by a boy who wanted him/her in one form but not in the other. At the forefront is a boy endowed with unique powers who would soon discover what he truly is. Apex Five offers much to debate and discuss. Weaponizing children for war, the conundrum of gender fluidity, and the quintessential pursuit for one’s identity are just a few. The characters drive the plot, and Katz manages to keep each one compelling, individual, and distinct.
The sheer scope of Apex Five makes it a bit overwhelming. While the prologue does pique the curiosity, the beginning chapters could have done with a little less info-dumping. (In the first chapter alone, all five nations are mentioned, at least two major historical events are alluded to, economic terms are bandied about, and apart from two characters talking, nine other names are thrown into the conversation as well.) The threads of the story soon intersect, albeit a little too slowly and a bit fragmentary, with a lot left unexplored by the time the book rolled to an end. At the bottom line, however, there is a reassuring quality in Katz’s writing that makes you feel you are in solid hands. There may be a long way to go, but she knows how to get there and she will not lead you astray.
I rate Apex Five 3 out of 4 stars. While the book appears professionally edited, there were still some typographical errors scattered throughout, and variations of the phrase “chewing/biting/gnawing the inside of one’s cheek” was used far too often in the text. Some formatting mistakes also led to odd breaks between the first few chapters. These aside, Apex Five is an impressive read, perfect for those looking for plotty stories, fully fleshed-out characters, and exceptional worldbuilding. If you're looking for your next sci-fi fix, Katz is a storyteller you'd definitely want to get to know.
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